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CIOs struggle with the great talent hunt

Stephanie Overby | May 2, 2013
Finding IT pros with business skills has always been a bear. So award-winning CIOs are taking radical steps to train, recruit or grow the hybrid staff they covet.

Over a two-year period, Bill Weeks saw 70 percent of his development team at SquareTwo Financial walk out the door. More than half of them left on their own. Weeks fired the rest.

It might sound like a leadership disaster, but it was the best thing that had happened to the $250 million asset-recovery company's IT organization in years.

When Weeks took over as CIO in 2010, the company was in growth mode, but IT was falling behind. He wanted to build a results-focused technology team, but many on staff refused to engage with business. "The previous CIO had told the IT staff, 'Business people are busy doing business things, and if I catch you talking to them, I'll fire you,'" says Weeks. "That's the exact opposite of what I believe."

Many IT executives face situations like Weeks', where they're challenged to build IT departments that are more strategic, serviced-oriented and engaged with the business--but they're dealing with employees who lack the skills to make the transformation.

According to a recent IDG Enterprise (IDGE) survey of 696 senior IT and business executives, more than half of respondents said IT must be business-savvy (61 percent), collaborative (53 percent), and innovative (50 percent). The only problem is that finding "hybrid" staff--those with that combination of tech skills and business savvy that CIOs covet--remains a problem.

Many IT employees still take a traditional view of their role, as order-takers rather than business partners; indeed, 58 percent of respondents to the IDGE survey rated their IT staff as reactive. And among their top IT-management challenges were cultivating strategic thinking (51 percent), developing business understanding (42 percent), and converting technologists to strategists (37 percent).

This talent issue is hardly new. IT leaders have preached the importance of the blended IT professional for years. But after a decade, it's clear that help is not on the way. Schools won't suddenly churn out enough perfect, well-rounded IT employees. Tech-knowledgeable business people aren't going to apply for IT assignments in droves. Developers and data warehouse professionals won't suddenly arrive at work as business strategists.

Leading CIOs are taking matters into their own hands. Some are firing folks who can't make the transition, or changing the way they hire. Others are encouraging existing staff to be more business-oriented or populating their IT ranks with recruits from the business. Some are mentoring. Others are stretching.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But CIOs are making progress. And, given what the business expects of IT, they don't have a choice.

What's Wrong With IT

Given the chance, 27 percent of IT and business leaders would remake their company's IT departments from scratch, according to the IDGE survey. It's a telling statistic, a sign of frustration at a time when CIOs are under pressure to boost business results and develop customer-facing applications but may lack the kind of staff that can do that.


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